As the combatant nations of World War II began crash programs to develop jet fighters, the USAAF issued a requirement for a high-altitude escort fighter in 1944 to supplement the P-80 Shooting Star. North American, which was already working on a similar aircraft for the US Navy, the FJ-1 Fury, submitted a stripped-down Fury (deleting everything necessary for carrier operations and using lighter aluminum) as the XP-86. While North American initially though the XP-86 would be able to reach nearly 600 mph—almost the speed of sound—the straight wing limited performance, and indeed the XP-86 was no faster or manueverable than the P-80 or Republic’s offer to the USAAF, the XP-84 Thunderjet.
With the project under threat of cancellation, North American looked for a solution and found one: the prewar German research into swept wings. By sweeping the wings back, this lessened drag and increased performance. Using the Messerschmitt 262 as a basis, the XP-86 was modified with a 35-degree wing sweep, leading edge slats, and a movable tailplane. When it first flew on 1 October 1947, it nearly reached the speed of sound. The newly-independent USAF quickly put the XP-86—now designated F-86A Sabre—into production as its primary day fighter, entering service in 1949. Pilots favorably compared the F-86 to an earlier North American product, the P-51 Mustang: like the Mustang, the Sabre was long-ranged, very manueverable, easy to fly, and had superb visibility from its bubble canopy.
The USAF would not have long to wait to see the Sabre’s prowess in combat. As the Korean War entered its sixth month with UN forces closing on the Chinese border at the Yalu River, UN air units began coming under attack from Chinese, North Korean, and—secretly—Soviet MiG-15s. The USAF’s propeller-driven F-51s and F-82s, and the straight wing F-80s and F-84s were outclassed by the swept wing MiG, so the F-86 was rushed to Korea and entered combat in December 1950. While the MiG-15 was more manueverable and could outclimb the F-86A, the Sabre was superior in the dive and at altitudes below 25,000 feet. North American quickly began production on new Sabre models designed to take on the MiG-15, namely the F-86E, with an “all-moving” tailplane and boosted controls, and the F-86F, which had a larger wing and improved slats for better low-speed manueverability.
While still unable to climb with the MiG-15, the F-86E/F allowed the Sabre pilots to better dogfight them, though the F-86’s armament of six .50 caliber machine guns was found to be inadequate against the cannon-armed MiG-15. Nonetheless, the higher skill of American F-86 pilots, improved Sabre variants, and a radar-ranging gunsight allowed Sabres to contest air superiority over “MiG Alley,” the valley of the Yalu River. USAF sources state a kill ratio of 12 to 1 over the MiG, while more recent research lowers that ratio as low as 2 to 1, at least against Soviet MiG pilots. (Russian pilots claimed to have shot down 600 F-86s over Korea, which is a very questionable figure, as the USAF never had more than 200 Sabres in Korea at any one time, and at one point in early 1951 only had 44 total.) Whatever the actual figures, 41 Americans became aces in the F-86; this was helped by the fact that nearly half the F-86 pilots in Korea had seen service in World War II, including Glenn Eagleston, Vermont Garrison, and Francis Gabreski.
Korea was not the last combat outing for the F-86. Sabres would see continual service well into the 1970s, seeing combat with the air forces of Pakistan, Portugal, and Taiwan. The latter introduced Sidewinder-armed F-86s, which caught Chinese MiG-15s by surprise in 1958; Pakistani F-86s were superior or equal to anything in India’s inventory in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War until the introduction of the Folland Gnat. One Pakistani pilot, Muhammad Alam, scored 11 kills in the Sabre, five of them in thirty seconds. The F-86’s flying qualities made it extremely popular, and the aircraft was exported to no less than 25 nations, both in the F-86 day fighter version and the F-86D Sabre Dog radar-equipped and rocket-armed interceptor. The USAF did not retire the F-86 until 1970, while Bolivia kept its F-86Fs in service until 1994.
Besides North American production, the Sabre was also license-built in Australia, Japan, Italy, and Canada; Canadair Sabres, equipped with a more powerful Orenda engine and the aerodynamic improvements of the F-86F, were considered the most manueverable of the Sabre variants. 9860 F-86s were produced, including the license-built aircraft; today nearly a hundred survive in museums with a few airworthy examples.
F-86F 55-5014 was originally built for the USAF, but was transferred to the Pakistani Air Force and may have seen combat during one of the Indo-Pakistani Wars. It was later sold to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force. In the 1970s, 55-5014 returned to the United States and became a spares source for the US Navy’s remaining QF-86 drones; the rear fuselage was used to restore a F-86 on display at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama. 55-5014 was obtained by the San Diego Air and Space Museum–probably as little more than a wreck by that time–and completely restored by 2004. Due to space constraints, it remains at the Gillespie Annex of the museum.
55-5014 wears false colors: it is restored in the markings of 51-2958, Captain Harold Fischer’s "Paper Tiger." Fischer would score 11 kills during the Korean War before being shot down inside Chinese territory in 1953, by Chinese MiG-15 pilot Han Decai. He was then imprisoned, tortured, and forced to confess to "war crimes." He was released in 1955, two years after the war ended, and resumed his USAF career, going on to fly 200 missions in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Later on in life, Fischer met Decai at a fighter pilot conference, and the two men became friends. He passed away in 2009.
"Paper Tiger" carries the checkerboard tail of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, based at Kimpo, South Korea. The sharkmouth was a personal marking, while the name and Fischer’s MiG kills are carried under the canopy–they’re a bit faded. On the opposite side is another bit a nose art, a pair of shapely female legs descending from clouds, titled "Heavens Above." This was the second F-86 I saw on our May 2021 trip that was painted as Fischer’s aircraft, though a more accurate one. My dad got to meet Fischer at a River Rat reunion briefly, so I was familiar with his story.
Tagged: , NorthAmerican , F-86 , F-86F , Sabre , 51stFIW , Kimpo , USAF , KoreanWar , HaroldFischer , PaperTiger , fighter , aircraft , SanDiegoAirandSpaceMuseum , GillespieAnnex